Former President Michelle Bachelet, the Nueva Mayoría pact’s candidate for Chile’s November presidential election, expressed her support on Monday for legalizing abortion in cases of medical emergency and rape. Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira and candidate for the incumbent Alianza por Chile coalition, has vowed to maintain the current policy of prohibition.
Reproductive rights has risen to national attention in the midst of outrage following news last week that a pregnant 11-year old Chilean girl—raped by her mother’s partner in the southern city of Puerto Montt—faces life-threatening complications from her pregnancy. The girl, identified only as Belén, has few legal options since abortion is banned in Chile under all circumstances.
Chile is one of the most socially-conservative countries in Latin America and has one of the most restrictive abortion policies in the world. Abortions for medical reasons were allowed until 1973, but then outlawed under Augusto Pinochet’s military rule. Despite the restriction, reports from the Ministry of Health estimate that around 150,000 abortions take place in Chile each year. However, President Sebastián Piñera has opposed loosening the prohibition. In 2012, the Senate rejected three bills that would have ended the absolute ban.
On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court passed Roe vs. Wade, a landmark decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to legal abortion services. In the 40 years since its passage, the ruling has allowed thousands in this country to avoid the dire consequences of unsafe and illegal procedures, and has also catalyzed four decades of political action in the Americas—both in support of and in opposition to reproductive rights.
In Latin America most women do not have access to legally terminate a pregnancy—even one that has resulted from rape, incest or that may critically threaten her health. Each year over 4 million of the region’s women have abortions, with approximately 95 percent of the procedures taking place in unsafe conditions. The results contribute to abortion-related rates of mortality that rank among the world’s highest. And the evidence is clear: criminalizing abortions does not decrease its practice or the incidence of unwanted pregnancies, but it does jeopardize women’s lives in terms of health, safety and economic well-being.
Each year thousands of Latin American abortion rights proponents and opponents work tirelessly on the issue—from grassroots organizations to church groups, politicians, lobbyists, and nongovernmental organizations.
The lower house of Uruguay’s Congress approved a law on Tuesday that authorizes abortion within 12 weeks of conception. The bill was approved by a narrow margin of 50 to 49 votes after 14 hours of debate.
The law project allows abortions only after a woman has met with a team of at least three professionals—a psychologist, a social worker and a “conscientious objector” (also known as an anti-abortion activist)—who can provide information on the risks, alternatives and adoption programs that are available. Five days after such meeting, if the woman confirms her willingness to end the pregnancy, the physicians arrange the procedure. This approval process does not apply in cases of pregnancy caused by rape or when pregnancy represents a high risk for the woman’s health, in which abortion is unrestricted if it happens within the first 14 weeks after conception.
President José Mujica has said he will approve the law if passed by Congress. This is the third attempt to decriminalize abortion promoted by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) since it assumed power in 2005. In 2008 a law was vetoed by former President Tabaré Vázquez from the FA due to his belief that if abortion is legalized the number of cases will proliferate. Then, in December 2011, the party was only one vote away from passing the bill, but debate was postponed for one more year. According to Iván Posada, a deputy for the Partido Independiente and key advocate of the project, the law “proposes an intermediate solution, the road that is less bad in terms of conflicting values.” It must now be approved by the Senate, where it is expected to pass by the end of the year.
In a region where the majority of people are Catholic, reproductive rights are a highly contested topic in Uruguay, as in the rest of Latin America. Although abortion is legal in several countries—including Cuba, Guayana and Mexico City—this is the first time a South American nation has taken steps toward decriminalizing abortion without restrictions to the reason for this practice. According to Joan Caivano and Jane Marcus-Delgado, 12 percent of all maternal deaths in Latin America are estimated to result from unsafe abortions.